Born in 1935 in a village just outside the Malian capital, Bamako, Malick Sidibé showed early promise as a draftsman. However, it was his skill with a camera that made his reputation as the ‘Eye of Bamako’. Sidibé ventured outside the confines of his studio in the early 1960s to document the city’s vibrant youth culture, which had been reinvigorated by Mali’s recent independence. Sidibé soon became a fixture on the dance party scene, where he was in high demand, capturing the optimism of this hopeful moment in Mali’s history.
The Bamako party series comprises the bulk of the exhibition’s 250 images. Amongst these are some of his most iconic images such as the exuberant limbo-dancing youth in Regardez-Moi ! (Look at Me !, 1962), and the adolescent pair (incidentally, brother and sister) gracing an empty dance floor in the exquisite Nuit de Noël (Christmas Night, 1963) – a photograph which Time magazine once counted among the ‘100 most influential images of all time’. Also included in the party series are the ‘folders’ Sidibé created to sell his pictures – they are actually sheets of coloured paper onto which he attached groups of small test prints. Each one is numbered and each folder is labelled with the event featured. As the story goes, when Sidibé returned from a dance, he would print the evening’s images, paste them onto these folders and hang them in the windows of his studio for the party-goers to see the following day. Their inclusion here offers an insight into the photographer’s importance within his community.
Less familiar but equally revealing are the images made on the banks of Niger River on Sunday afternoons when locals would meet for picnics, music and swimming. As at the dances, Sidibé was a popular presence at these weekend gatherings, where revellers would vie for the attention of his camera. The enthusiasm is palpable in images such as Pique-nique à la Chaussée (Picnic at the Causeway, 1972), in which young boys show off their records (and their acrobatic prowess), la plage (The Beach, 1974), where a group stands, arms round each other’s shoulders, in a willing display of camaraderie, and Pendant les grandes chaleurs (During the Big Heat, 1976), in which a cluster of youths, partially submerged in the river, appear as little more than heads above the water.
Perhaps the most fascinating and surprising of Sidibé’s works on display at Fondation Cartier are his portraits, which, rather than being grouped together, have been interspersed throughout the exhibition. Using a simple curtain as a backdrop, Sidibé showed the people of Bamako exactly as they wanted to be seen. They would arrive at his studio with their most treasured possessions – scooters, radios, cameras – dressed in the latest (and often most outlandish) Western fashions. In Un jeune gentleman (A Young Gentleman, 1974), a boy strikes a catalogue model’s pose, hand on hip, foot propped on a stool, flaunting an unmistakably 1970s suit and platform shoes, and in Les trois amis avec motos (Three Friends with Motorbikes, 1975), two sharply dressed young men sit atop mopeds, while a third stands between them, staring at us through mirrored sunglasses. To bemoan commodity fetishism or the West’s tacky influence would be easy and clichéd responses to images such as these, but as Robert Storr notes in his essay for the exhibition catalogue, what these pictures actually show are the people of post-colonial Bamako affirming their identities and proudly asserting their modernity.
Photography often reveals by capturing subjects unaware, but in Sidibé’s pictures, a city and its people show themselves willingly. These moments were not stolen; they were given freely by a young, confident generation eager to show the world who they were and more importantly, who they weren’t. And while the Mali of today is perhaps very different from the one shown in ‘Mali Twist’, those moments given so freely so many decades ago continue to live on, all thanks to the faithful ‘Eye of Bamako’.
Main image: Malick Sidibé, Pendant les grandes chaleurs (During the Big Heat), 1976, silver gelatin print. Courtesy: Collection Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris © Malick Sidibé